02 May 2020

Artists often articulate criticism of social and political conditions in their works, thereby triggering controversy. Depending on the time or regime, the consequence they have to bear is censorship.

This was also the fate of Basel artist Paul Camenisch. Every year the Basler Kunstverein held a large Christmas exhibition in which the latest works of local artists were presented to the public. Camenisch was an established artist and had already shown various works at the Kunstverein with his group "Rot-Blau". But when he wanted to submit a work entitled Swiss Narcissus for the Christmas exhibition in 1944, it was rejected by the jury and not exhibited.

The painting shows a male nude in double reproduction. We see the same figure once standing in front of a mirror and once in the reflection of the mirror. The generous male nude may have been one of the reasons for the rejection, but the background of the painting, which at first glance is not very striking, and the political criticism that the background implies in connection with the title of the work were probably more important in this decision. The naked figure, casually looking at himself in the mirror, is standing in a bathroom with tiles on the wall, which on closer inspection turn out to be a hodgepodge of scenes of various war atrocities – one more horrible than the other. You can see firing squads, mutilation, rape, forced labour, but also flight and expulsion, burning books and a ban on freedom of expression.

In these tiles Camenisch unsparingly denounces the senseless violence of the people. But this is only one part of the picture content. For the central motif is still the male nude. And with the help of the title we can also identify it. We know Narcissus from Greek mythology; he fell in love with his own reflection to such an extent that he found death in it. If we apply this story to our painting, it is easy to read the sharp criticism that is inherent in this work and that probably moved the jury of the Kunstverein not to exhibit it: The Swiss narcissist looks in the mirror in love with himself, he can hardly take his eyes off himself, and turns his back on all the events that take place directly behind him. We are in the year 1944, just behind Basel's border the 2nd World War is in full progress.

Paul Camenisch was very active politically. He was a convinced communist and co-founder of the PdA (Party of Labor) in 1944, which he represented for many years in the Basel City Council. He must have been a passionate advocate of his convictions – ideologically, verbally and persistently. His political enthusiasm eventually even led to his exclusion from the Basel Artists' Association "Gruppe 33" in 1953, although he was a founding member and long-time president. From then on he worked in great artistic and social isolation.

Author: Seraina Werthemann, art historian and art mediator